Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Voyage to the center of Piranesi’s imaginary prison

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the son of stonemason and nephew of an engineer, first trained under that uncle as an architect maintaining the intricate waterworks of his native Venice. Even though he only ever got one job as an architect in his all too short life, he never lost the passion for buildings. It was as an artist that he made his name. He learned etching in Rome and combined his artistic talent with his favorite subject matter to create views of the city that became popular among Grand Tourists. Piranesi’s etchings of ancient Roman architecture were not only captured with the meticulous understanding of the builder, but were drawn with such powerful chiaroscuro dynamism that Goethe, for one, who first came to know the city through Piranesi’s books, was actually disappointed when he saw the real thing.

Piranesi didn’t limit himself to depictions of Rome and its ruins for the pilgrims and tourists. In 1745, he began work on an entirely new vision, combining his artistic style and understanding of ancient monumental construction to create a unique group of etchings called Carceri d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons). The imaginary part is that they bear no relation to any actual prisons of the era which were mostly cramped dungeon cells in the towers and palaces of the Church and aristocracy. Piranesi’s invented prisons were cavernous labyrinths peppered with intimidatingly suggestive mechanisms where human figures are barely present and dwarfed by their surroundings.

The first edition of Carceri d’Invenzione was published in 1750. It was a collection of 14 untitled etchings drawn in a rough sketch-like style. You can see all 14 of the original Carceri in order here. Ten years later, he would return to his imaginary prisons and do a major revamp of the etchings. He added two new ones and fleshed out the others with even more complex architectural features, increased contrasts of shadow and light, arches, staircases and vaults that lead nowhere.

The prison etchings were part of an artistic tradition called the capriccio, a fantasy aggregation of structures and art works that doesn’t exist in real life. These sorts of imaginary viewpoints were popular with tourists because they compressed the “must see” ruins and artworks into one painting. What Piranesi did with the form, however, was entirely new. The prisons were expressions of visions in his mind, not of tourist bullet points. They wouldn’t be purchased as pre-photography postcards, but the prisons’ tenebrous atmosphere and emotional impact were highly influential for the Romantics of the late 18th/early 19th centuries. The irrational elements like infinitely regressing passageways would later inspire the Surrealists and if Escher’s Relativity doesn’t owe Piranesi a huge debt, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

In 2010, the Sale del Convitto in Venice held an exhibition Le Arti di Piranesi: architetto, incisore, antiquario, vedutista, designer (The Arts of Piranesi: architect, engraver, antiquarian, vedutista, designer) to coincide with the Venice Biennale of Architecture. The Carceri etchings played a central part in the show, and graphic artist Gregoire Dupond of Factum Arte brought them to virtual life with an absolutely riveting animation. He took the 16 prints of the second edition and transformed them into a three-dimensional space so viewers can travel deep into Piranesi’s imagination.

It’s 12 minutes long and it’s nothing short of riveting.

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Rare Roman intaglio bracelet to go on display

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014


On July 26th, 2012, a metal detectorist found a Roman bracelet near Dalton, Cumbria, northwestern England. It was broken in two pieces: a twisted tube made out of spiralled silver wire and a hinged round bezel with a red gemstone intaglio of Jupiter. Dating to the 2nd or 3rd century A.D., this bracelet is a very rare artifact, especially so for the Furness area because no Roman structures have ever been found there. Plenty of Roman coins have been, but not high-end jewelry like this piece. The artifact thus testifies to the wide range of Roman trade reaching the ends of the empire, or it may point to a settlement that hasn’t been unearthed yet.

The finder reported it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme liaison and the subsequent coroner’s inquest declare it official treasure trove. Since then, the bracelet has been at the British Museum where experts were studying it and assessing its market value so a local museum, in this case the Dock Museum in Furness, could acquire it. The price was modest compared to some of the major treasure finds — just £1,800 ($3,000) — but small local museums don’t have acquisition budgets so they had to raise the funds.

Thanks to a donation from the Furness Maritime Trust, the Dock Museum is now the proud owner of this beautiful and rare piece of jewelry. It will go on display on March 14th in the museum’s new archaeology gallery. There will be associated workshops at the end of the month that schools have been invited to, and on Saturday, April 12th, a free Roman-themed family fun day.

It’s only fair that such a handsome piece of jewelry would inspire all kinds of new exhibitions and events at the museum. I think the striking spiral wire design with filigree terminals is reminiscent of a torc while the intaglio is a Greco-Roman classic. That’s not to say this was a hybrid of British and Roman workmanship. The thick spiral-twisted wire band with elaborate terminals and an engraved gemstone set in hinged bezel center is a design that has been found far, far away from Britannia. A similar silver hinged bracelet was found in Slovenia. Gold examples have been found in Syria and Egypt. This was an import, and an expensive one at that.

From the curator’s report for the treasure inquest:

The distorted elliptical hoop comprises a fine and evenly-twisted, tightly-spiralled tube made from circular-sectioned silver wire. Quite heavy wear is visible on both sides of the hoop. What appears to be the central core, around which the wire was spiralled, is visible under magnification in those places where distortion has slightly ‘opened’ the twisted strands, but its composition is uncertain. Each terminal is enclosed in a tubular collar which is decorated with an applied central meander filigree wire flanked by a double-ring edge-moulding. [...]

The large circular bezel, a hollow box construction of silver sheet, has a plain back and sides. Its ornate upper face comprises an outer basal zone of herringbone pattern, formed from three concentric circles of twisted wire, and a central raised open dome with ribbed side and stepped, apparently rubbed-over, setting. The oval gem, seemingly of translucent orange-red colour, has dropped out of position to the base of the box-setting, presumably as a result of the deterioration and loss of an original organic packing. Engraved into its lightly convex surface is the image of a seated Jupiter, with wreath and full-length drapery, holding a sceptre in his left hand. In his extended right hand he holds a patera above a stylised flaming altar.

Whoever owned this bracelet had to be very wealthy. Dock Museum curator Sabine Skae speculates that it belonged to a wealthy Furness woman, native rather than Roman, who could afford the best and wanted to show it off.

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Conserving the Staffordshire Hoard

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

The 4,000 Anglo-Saxon pieces of gold, silver and garnet weapons fittings discovered in Staffordshire field in 2009 and in a 2012 follow-up excavation impressed with the exceptional quality of workmanship even when they were still encrusted with soil. The cleaning process has revealed metalwork and gemwork of such sophistication experts aren’t even sure how it was accomplished. Because the pieces were damaged when they were stripped from their original weapons, conservators have had a unique chance to examine construction features that are invisible in complete pieces like those discovered at Sutton Hoo or other burial sites.

Conserving intricately decorated gold artifacts requires the use of special tools. The scalpels and microdrills in the standard conservator toolbox are too dangerous to use with soft, malleable gold. They could scratch or gouge the surface. Instead, the Staffordshire Hoard conservators are using thorns, natural thorns like off a bush. They have sharp points for getting between tiny beads and edges, but they bend under pressure and don’t scratch the surface of the gold, glass or gem insets.

This video from the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, co-owner of the hoard along with the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, shows a conservator cleaning the top of a sword pyramid and a fragment of silver foil stamped with two male faces. You can see the thorn held in a pin vice scrape away the dirt. Then the surface is wiped with a cotton swab dampened with industrial methylated spirit. Soft brushes and air puffers gently remove the loosened soil.

The video at the bottom of this page shows the thorn deployed in cleaning the gold filigree of a damaged hilt plate, but that’s one of the simplest filigree designs. Conservation of the hoard has found a great many incredibly tiny, incredibly detailed filigree patterns. This blog entry from a jeweler covers just a few of the techniques the Anglo-Saxon craftsmen used to produce wirework so fine that we need microphotography to fully explore today. This blog entry describes some of the patterns — linear, spiral, zoomorphic, etc. — in the Staffordshire filigree pieces.

One of the most breathtaking examples of filigree is the stylized seahorse mount. Those spirals are so minute, three of them are almost as long as a grain of rice.

The garnet cloisonné has proven to hold hidden depths revealed by conservation as well. Like all cloisonné, it was made by creating a cell (called a cloison) out of gold wires. The cells were backed with gold foil and filled primarily with garnets. Today cloisonné is filled with vitreous enamel which is powdered before it’s fired, but the Anglo-Saxon jewelers had a much more difficult task because they had to cut the garnets into small, thin shapes that precisely fit the cloisons. Garnets are hard gemstones and probably had to be ground to shape, using what tools we do not know. We do know that missing garnets were replaced by red glass. Blue glass insets have also been found as have opaque glass checkerboard or millefiori designs that experts believe are recycled Roman pieces.

The foil behind the garnets give the gems an added shine boost, and it may give historians a boost into a new understanding of Anglo-Saxon schools of metalwork. So far conservators have identified four distinct gold foil designs. If they can be compared to artifacts discovered in other locations, it may be possible to group them by workshop or regional style.

This blog entry describes the conservation of two cloisonné objects. You can see in the microphotographs miniscule marks left during the stripping of the fittings and during the initial workmanship. Tiny troughs incised in the gold outline where the cloison walls once were, troughs just a quarter of a millimeter thick which is thinner than a lot of cloisonné produced today.

Bookmark the Staffordshire Hoard Conservation & Research blog now, and say goodbye to the rest of your weekend because every entry is fascinating. Enhance your reading with the swooningly gorgeous images on the Hoard Flickr page.

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Mummy in Germany is murdered Inca woman

Friday, February 28th, 2014

A mummy that has been in the collection of the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection in Munich has been identified as a young Inca woman whose skull was smashed shortly before death. When the mummy came to the museum from the Anatomical Institute of Ludwig-Maximilians University in 1970, all documentation of its origin was lost. It was first recorded at the university in 1904, but its movements before then were unknown. Because of the mummy’s dark brown skin, it was thought to be a bog body, possibly recovered from the Dachauer moor outside of Munich. The plaited hair, the fetal position (minus the lower legs which were damaged by bombing in World War II), the well-preserved bone tissue all argued against a central European bog origin, however.

The mummy has been on display at the State Archaeological Collection since the donation. To finally identify the mummy’s origin, physical condition and cause of death, the museum decided to do a full forensic anthropological examination. They took CT scans of the entire body, did stable and unstable isotope analysis of the teeth, examined tissue samples microscopically, tested ancient DNA and reconstructed any injuries found.

Radiocarbon dating found the mummy dates to 1451–1642 A.D. and was between 20 and 25 years old at the time of death. Stable isotope analysis revealed that she ate maize and seafood and was from the Peruvian/Northern Chilean border along the coast. Her hair was dark in life (it has faded over the centuries) and her braids are tied with fiber bundles made from wavy camelid hair, a pattern characteristic of New World camelids (alpacas or llamas). Her skull also testifies to her origin: she has a Wormian or “Inca” bone at her occiput, an extra wedge of bone between sutures that is found in native South American populations but not European ones, and the flattened back of her skull is typical of Inca intentional cranial deformation.

It was the skull that held the biggest surprise. She lost her front teeth after death and there’s a small wound on her forehead, but other than that, from the outside, the head looks intact. The CT scans revealed impressions are vastly deceiving. She was a victim of massive blunt force trauma to the skull. her forehead, upper skull and face were completely staved in. The upper jaw was broken. Large chunks of bone are lying against the back of the skull, along with the remains of brain tissue and possible sites of blood accumulation.

This was a perimortem injury, inflicted around the time of death, not damage done to the body after death. Terrace-like shapes on the inside back of the skull suggest a rounded weapon was used to beat her face in by someone standing in front of her. How she might have encountered this brutal skull-collapsing fate is unclear. Ritual murder is one possible explanation, but without a burial context, it’s probably unprovable. Osteological evidence suggests she lived fairly well — her dental wear was low and her joints and vertebra show no sign of stressful labor — but she was ill. Thickening of some of her heart and large intestine tissue and DNA found in rectal tissue indicate she suffered from a chronic parasitic infection by the protozoan Trypanosoma cruzi, known as Chagas disease, since infancy. Perhaps her lifetime debilitating illness made her a candidate for sacrifice. If she’s going to die anyway, goes the logic, might as well give her demise religious significance.

As far as how she got from Peru to Germany, researchers believe the mummy was one of two brought to Germany by Princess Theresa von Bayern of Bavaria at the turn of the century. Princess Theresa was the daughter of Prince Regent Luitpold who ruled Bavaria while King Ludwig II, the great palace builder sometimes known as Ludwig the Mad, was sidelined by purported mental illness. In her youth she and her cousin Otto, Ludwig’s brother and successor, were in love but could not marry because of Otto’s own struggles with mental illness and the political complications of her father being regent. She never married, dedicating her life to educating herself (women were not allowed to attend university) in the natural sciences.

In 1898, Princess Theresa went on an expedition to Peru. According to her records, she carried two mummies with her back to Bavaria. There are no records of where she installed the mummies. She died in 1925, leaving her extensive collection of South American anthropological remains to the State Museum of Ethnology in Munich. Since this mummy appears in the Anatomical Institute records in 1904, just six years after her Peruvian expedition, if it was one of the Princess Theresa mummies, she probably donated it to them directly.

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700-year-old tea jar Chigusa at the Sackler

Monday, February 24th, 2014

Chigusa, glazed stoneware tea storage jar, mid-13th to mid-14th century ChinaChigusa was not born into refinement and elegance. It was a utilitarian piece, a large stoneware jar made in southern China in the 13th or 14th century and exported to Japan for use as a commercial container. Large at 16.5 inches high with four lugs around the neck and a mottled amber iron glaze that swoops down in overlapping ovals, once in Japan it was used to store tea, and it was this association that paved its road to glory.

Ciphers of past owners on Chigusa's baseChigusa worked uncomplainingly for centuries to earn a proper name, exquisite adornments and the contemplative gaze of some of the greatest masters of Japan’s tea culture. It had an important job. Matcha, the powdered green tea used in the tea ceremony, is harvested in May when the leaves are still young. Tea connoisseurs would stamp their names on the base of their jars and send them to the growers in the spring so the freshly picked and steamed leaves could be placed directly in the vessel. The mouth was sealed with a stopper and the tea left alone for six months to allow the flavor to ripen and mature. In November, the jar was opened and the first tea of the year drunk, an important ritual in Japan’s chanoyu (meaning “the way of tea”).

Tea master Kamiya Sotan's diary entry describing Chigusa, 1587The base of Chigusa has four names written in black lacquer. The first of them is Noami, a 15th century artist and tea expert for the Ashikaga shogunate. The next owner to leave his mark was Torii Insetsu (1448-1517), a tea master in the city of Sakai who would be revered by his successors. Ju Soho’s cipher is next. He is known to have hosted a tea in 1573 attended by Chigusa and the tea master Sen no Rikyu, one of the most influential masters, if not the most influential, in the development of tea culture. We know Chigusa was there at this ceremony because another guest, Imai Sokyu, wrote about seeing the “large jar … Chigusa” which had once belonged to the great Insetsu. A few years later the fourth owner, merchant Kondaya Tokurin, added his name to the base.

Chigusa's historical documentsWe don’t know who named the jar, but it was likely a poetry reference. The word means “myriad varieties” or “thousand plants” (it alters depending on which characters are used). By the time Sokyu wrote about Chigusa, its name was already known and the once workaday storage jar had become a meibutsu, a “celebrated tea object” that inspired masters to look at it carefully, writing journal entries about the smallest details of its glaze, shape and aesthetic significance. Tea master Yamanoue Soji observed Chigusa at a ceremony hosted by warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in Osaka Castle in 1584 and recorded it in his diary. So did Kamiya Sotan three years later.

Chigusa with mouth cover, cords, silk net bagOver the centuries, its rustic beauty would be adorned with precious materials worthy of its importance: a mouth cover made out of gold brocade Ming Dynasty silk, a blue silk net bag from the Muromachi or Momoyama period in the 16th century, blue ornamental cords from the Meiji era (1868–1912). It has three nested storage boxes to keep it and its accoutrements safe. The innermost box was made during the Edo period (1615–1868) from lacquered paulownia wood. What is now the middle box was originally the outer box. It was also made in the Edo period out of cedar wood stained with persimmon tannin. The outermost box today is from the Meiji era. Trays inside the innermost box hold the cords, net, letters and other documentation that illustrates the rich history of this unique jar.

Chigusa's three nesting storage boxesBy the 17th century, Chigusa was so important it played a part in Japanese politics. During the Tokugawa shogunate, shoguns and daimyos gave it as a gift to seal alliances and prove their loyalty. It remained in Tokugawa hands until the end of the shogunate in 1868, after which Chigusa entered the tea collection market. Wealthy industrialists owned it, allowing it to go on display very occasionally. It only left Japan once in 2009 when it went to New York City to find a new home. At a Christie’s auction on September 17th, Chigusa with all its goods was bought by the Freer Gallery of Art for $662,500.

Tray of innermost box with cords and envelopes holding documentationThe Freer and the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are the Smithsonian’s Asian art branches, centered on core collections built by their eponymous founders. Chigusa is therefore in good company, despite its great distance from home. There are only a few hundred such large tea storage jars with all their accessories and documentation remaining in Japan, and only a smattering of remotely comparable pieces abroad.

On February 22nd, Chigusa and the Art of Tea debuted at the Sackler.

In Chigusa and the Art of Tea, Chigusa holds court alongside other cherished objects, including calligraphy by Chinese monks, Chinese and Korean tea bowls and Japanese stoneware water jars and wooden vessels that were used and enjoyed during this formative time of Japanese tea culture. In order to create the intimate feel of a 16th-century tea gathering, part of the exhibition space recreates a Japanese tea room, complete with tatami mats.

“Tea men looked at Chigusa and found beauty even in its flaws, elevating it from a simple tea jar to how we know it today,” said Louise Allison Cort, curator of ceramics at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. “This ability to value imperfections in objects made by the human hand is one of the great contributions of Japanese tea culture to the world.”

Chigusa with brocade mouth cover and knotted ornamental cordThe exhibition includes a video of a tea master ceremonially adorning Chigusa, tying elaborate decorative knots with the blue cords, connecting the blue silk net bag, and tying the brocaded cover on the mouth. A traditional tea ceremony will be hosted for visitors on March 23rd and April 6th. There are also regular lunch tours led by curators and panel discussions with researchers Oka Yoshiko and Andrew M. Watsky. See the full list of events and dates here.

The exhibition closes on July 27th, 2014, after which Chigusa will travel to the Princeton University Art Museum in Princeton, New Jersey, where it will be on display from October 11th through February 1st, 2015.

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Lost portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie found

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

In 2008, art historian Dr. Bendor Grosvenor, director of London art gallery Philip Mould Ltd, caused a stir when he claimed that a portrait in the National Galleries of Scotland purporting to be a pastel of Bonnie Prince Charlie by Maurice Quentin de la Tour was actually a portrait of his younger brother, Henry, Duke of York. The museum which had bought the painting in 1994 for £22,000 ($36,583), pointed to a top expert’s authentication and insisted the portrait was the pretender to the British throne. When said top expert admitted in 2009 that Grosvenor’s argument was supported by the weight of the evidence (Grosvenor’s paper in the British Art Journal is pretty damn persuasive), the National Galleries had to grudgingly admit they had bought a prince in a poke, to coin a phrase.

Grosvenor’s vindication was not cause for unbridled joy. The painting in question was considered the best surviving portrait of Prince Charles in his prime. There are paintings of him as a youth and as an old man, but this one showed him in armor, the dashing prince seeking to reclaim his throne from the Hanoverians. It was printed in histories, biographies, on shortbread tins and was literally next to the prince’s name in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. “Bonnie Prince Charlie is one of my heroes,” said the art historian, “and I always felt bad about debunking what used to be his most famous portrait.” So he set about looking for a real portrait of the prince, one that was known to have existed in the 1740s but was lost after the defeat of the Jacobite Rebellion at the Battle of Culloden on April 16th, 1746.

His first stop was the Royal Archives in Windsor Castle. There he found a letter from by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s valet to renown Scottish painter Allan Ramsay. It said: “Sir, you are desired to come to the Palace of Holyroodhouse as soon as possible in order to take his Royal Highness’ picture. So I expect you’ll wait no further call. I am, your most humble servant, John Stuart, Holyrood House 26th of October 1745″. That was important because it confirmed the existence of a portrait painted in Scotland, not England, by a Scottish painter rather than de La Tour.

Grosvenor then went to the National Portrait Gallery in London to look through its archives. He found a black and white picture of a painting of Charles that bore some of the hallmarks of Ramsay’s style. The sitter painter wasn’t identified, but on the back of the photograph was a note saying that the portrait was at Gosford House, seat of the Earls of Wemyss in East Lothian, Scotland.

“I went to Gosford House where the portrait had been hanging in a dark, downstairs corridor. It had always been known that it was Bonnie Prince Charlie but not known to have been painted by Ramsay in Scotland.” Dr Grosvenor added that Ramsay went on to become King George III’s official artist and the portrait of the Jacobite prince became his “guilty little secret”.

Dr Duncan Thomson, former director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and an expert on Ramsay, said: “This portrait brings the prince back to life in a way I’d never thought imaginable. It’s hard to overstate the importance of finding a portrait of the prince painted in Scotland by a Scottish artist.”

The Ramsay portrait, depicting Prince Charles Stuart wearing the blue sash and star of the English Order of the Garter, was supposed to be Charles first official state portrait after his great victory placed him on the throne his grandfather, James II, had vacated so hastily in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Charles took the painting with him in 1745 when he and his army got as far south as Derbyshire. It was still with him when his forces turned back to Scotland and met their fate at Culloden a few months later.

With the Jacobite hopes dashed, even supporters weren’t keen to be seen displaying fine portraits of the failed pretender. The original painting disappeared from the public record. The image survived thanks to an engraving made of the Ramsay portrait by Robert Strange. It appeared on Jacobite memorabilia, like this scent bottle made in Bourbon-ruled Naples around 1753. Notice the addition of the green sash of the Scottish Order of the Thistle. The prince who had himself painted with specific English references to enlist iconography in supporting his claim was now wistfully draped in his Scottish colors too.

No decision has been made about display of the portrait. Gosford House released a statement saying that they’re considering where it might be exhibited in the near future.

The BBC dedicated an episode of The Culture Show, hosted by Bendor Grosvenor, to the discovery. If you’re in Britain or can make your computer pretend to be in Britain, the show will be available for viewing on the BBC’s website for the next six days.

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A lady’s bag at the court of Mosul in 1300

Friday, February 21st, 2014

The ancient city of Mosul on the west bank of the Tigris in what is today Iraq, once home to the palace of King Sennacherib and Library of Ashurbanipal, has had many different rulers seek to profit from its location as a hub in trade routes connecting Persia, India and the Mediterranean. In 1262, it was conquered by the Mongol forces of Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan who expanded the southwestern Mongol empire from Uzbekistan to Syria.

Hulagu was not known for his light hand. Any cities where he encountered resistance were destroyed and their inhabitants slaughtered. When the Mongols conquered Baghdad in 1258, they virtually leveled the city. It’s said that the waters of the Tigris turned black with the ink from the thousands of books from the Grand Library of Baghdad that the Mongols threw into the river. Mosul was spared, however, because governor Badr al-Din Lu’lu’ agreed to support Hulagu’s invasion of Syria. The Mongol Ilkhanid and Jalayrid dynasties ruled Mosul through the 15th century until it was conquered by the Turkic Aq Qoyunlu Confederation.

Even before the arrival of the Mongols, Mosul was famed for its exceptional metalworking tradition. The technique originated in Persia, but Mosul’s location at the cross-roads of trade influenced the craft, introducing new forms of vessels and designs from the Byzantine Empire. Brass containers were inlaid with silver and copper creating intricate geometric decoration and scenes of courtiers hunting, traveling, adorning themselves, drinking, eating and listening to live music. The Blacas Ewer, now in the British Museum, is an exceptional example of Mosul metalwork. Made by Shuja’ ibn Mana al-Mawsili in 1232 (he signed and dated the piece, for which we were eternally grateful), the ewer may have been commissioned by Badr al-Din Lu’lu’ or one of his courtiers. He is known to have commissioned a number of pieces that bear his name.

As noted by Spanish Muslim author Ibn Said al-Maghribi in his 1250 book Geography, Mosul metalwork vessels were so highly prized they were used as diplomatic gifts, a high honor considering they were made out of brass instead of the gold and silver that were the expected standard of gift-giving between rulers.

The Courtauld Gallery in London is the proud owner of another example of Mosul metalwork, a piece made in the first century of Mongol reign around 1300-1330. This form is one of a kind, so exceptional that it is rarely included in studies of the craft. The artifact has been part of the Courtauld’s permanent collection since 1966 when it was bequeathed to the institution by the grandson of collector and museum patron Thomas Gambier Parry. Experts have debated its function for decades. It’s shaped like a clutch purse, but they weren’t making brass ladies’ handbags in 1300s Mosul. Some proposed functions include wallet, saddlebag and document carrier.

The Courtauld is putting on a new exhibition centered around this beautiful piece. Court and Craft: A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq proposed a new function for the Courtauld wallet: a lady’s shoulder bag. Exhibition curator Rachel Ward found an important clue in the decoration of the bag itself.

The key to unlocking its secret is an unusual panel on the top showing a nobleman and women and their attendants. One of those, a smiling page boy, has the bag around his shoulder.

Wider research by Ward has turned up considerable visual evidence of bag-carrying page boys next to noblewomen but never alongside men.

“Other people in the past have called it everything from a work basket to a document wallet and inevitably male academics always assume it was for a man.

“What I’m saying is it’s a lady’s bag. It is the forerunner of a designer bag. The only difference between a modern and expensive designer bag and this one is that you get a bag carrier to go with it.”

The bag will be on display along with 40 other relevant works from collections around the world, including the Blacas Ewer. The exhibition will look at how Mosul society was depicted before and after the Mongol conquest in its art. The museum will also recreate the scene from the top of the bag, building a life-sized display of the courtly festivities from artifacts similar to the ones depicted.

The exhibition opened on Thursday and will run through May 18th.

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A4s together one last time for The Great Goodbye

Friday, February 14th, 2014

After smashing attendance records at The Great Gathering, the reunion of all six surviving A4 Class Pacific steam locomotives held at the National Railway Museum in York last July, Bittern, Dominion of South Africa, Dominion of Canada, Sir Nigel Gresley, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mallard, holder of the world land speed record for steam locomotives, will come together one last time for The Great Goodbye at the National Railway Museum in Shildon.

2013 was a banner year for the A4s. Mallard reached the record speed of 125.88 miles per hour on July 3rd, 1938. To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the locomotive’s still unmatched accomplishment, the four A4s in museums in the UK were restored and refurbished. The two remaining were shipped back from Montreal, Canada, and Green Bay, Wisconsin, in an immensely complex operation, giving train lovers a chance to see the six A4s refurbished to original condition and all together for the first time.

The six were on display together at The Great Gathering in York from July 3rd to July 17th before splitting up for events around the country. They regrouped at York on October 26th for The Autumn Great Gathering where, among other events, students from York College bathed the A4s in beautiful colored lights for the Locos in a Different Light display. There are some beautiful pictures of the A4s looking even more like works of art than they do just being themselves in this Flickr album.

Also not to be missed are this National Railway Museum blog entry about the Heritage Painting team that restored Mallard — I love the picture of it in its somber matte black war time livery — and this entry summarizing the highlights of Mallard‘s 75 years.

The year of the A4s is coming to a close now, sadly. The Great Goodbye opens Saturday, February 15th and lasts just a week, closing on Sunday, February 23th. Exhibit hours are 9:30AM and 5:00PM and admission is free. If it’s anything like the other Great Gathering events, crowds will flock to see the locomotives so expect lines. All the special photography events and four of seven curator talks are already sold out, but there are still tickets available for the formal Gala Dinner on February 21st (book online here).

There are no firm dates yet because it will depend on weather conditions, a very tricky proposition right now in England which is suffering from horrendous floods, but some time this Spring or Summer, Dominion of Canada will return to the Canadian Railway Museum, in Saint-Constant, a suburb of Montreal, and Dwight D. Eisenhower will return to the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay. The chances of them ever crossing the Atlantic again are slim to none.

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Important early Seurat drawing acquired by the Getty

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

When you think of Georges Seurat, you probably picture his pointillist masterpieces like A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte, but in his tragically short life (he died during a diphtheria epidemic when he was just 31 years old), Seurat produced far more drawings than he did paintings. Along with La Grande Jatte, he made six other large-scale paintings, 60 smaller paintings and oil sketches, some of the latter preparatory to the monumental pieces. There are about 500 surviving drawings, plus four sketchbooks from late teens and early 20s when he was in art school and just after he left. (You can see selections from those notebooks in this online exhibit MoMA created to accompany their 2007 show of Seurat’s drawings.) Stripped of the intense color and brushwork of his Pointillist pieces, Seurat’s drawings showcase his development as an artist, his understanding of light and dark, his use of lines, cross-hatching, paper and pencil textures to create images that can be both realistic and sometimes verging on abstract.

Georges Seurat was born to well-off parents in Paris in 1859. He began drawing at an early age; his first extant drawings were signed and dated 1874, when he was 14 years old. Recognizing his talent but unwilling to let him bypass a conventional education, in 1875 his parents sent him to the Ecole Municipale de Sculpture et Dessin, a small neighborhood art school run by sculptor Justin Lequien, while he finished high school. There the focus was on copying the classics, drawing from lithographs of old masters and plaster casts of ancient sculptures. He was entirely competent at it, but there was little sign in these highly formal early forays of the innovator Seurat would soon become.

His secondary schooling completed, in 1878 he passed the entrance exam of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and continued his instruction under Henri Lehman. Lehman’s pedagogical approach was similar to Lequien’s, focused on drawing live models, after antique sculptures, old masters and French Baroque and Neoclassical works. Drawings survive from Seurat’s school days that are copies after Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Ghiberti, Perugino, Holbein, Poussin and Ingres, among others. He seemed poised to follow the well-worn path towards conventional success in the French art world of the late 19th century: pass exams, exhibit, win prizes, go to Rome to study the classics in person, return to snag commissions from the government and wealthy patrons.

Then he took a detour. Eighteen months in to his studies at the Ecole, he left to do a year of military service. In November of 1880, he was released but he didn’t go back to school. His formal education was over. Seurat rented a little studio apartment, drew informal sketches of the people and landscapes of Paris and environs, spending two years concentrating on black and white drawing. That’s not to say he rejected his schooling. He may have chafed under it and rebelled, but you can see the student of ancient sculpture in the still postures of La Grande Jatte, and the Renaissance copyist in his embrace of light and dark.

He would later describe this period to Belgian symbolist poet Emile Verhaeren: “Little by little he told me about his beginnings, his apprenticeship with Lehmann, his school years, the whole story of efforts soured by routine and outmoded practices. Then how he found himself, personally, through studying others, through lessons and rules, the way one discovers unknown stones beneath stratifications of land and soil.” That voyage of self-discovery, of integrating his schooling with his own vision and study of color theory, is key to our understanding of the Post-Impressionist pioneer he grew into.

One of the earliest drawings to show Seurat’s movement away from idealized antique forms into his own personal style is Mendiant Hindou (Indian Beggar), drawn ca. 1878, either the end of his studies at the Ecole Municipale de Sculpture et Dessin or the beginning of his time at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. It sold at a Sotheby’s auction on Thursday for $3,971,644 including buyer’s premium, far, far exceeding the pre-sale estimate of $130,512 – $195,768. Instead of disappearing into an anonymous private collection, this important transitional piece has found a new home in that most deep-pocketed of museums, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The Getty has no Seurat paintings, but it does have three other significant drawings the artist made in the early 1880s.

Indian Beggar represents a critical turning point in Seurat’s approach to figure drawing, towards a more distinctive style that employs gradations of light and shadow to define the form and mood of his subjects.

In the drawing, the subject, an old man, sits with his face turned away from the viewer, shoulders slumped, with folds of skin rippling down his stomach. Delicate effects of light and shadow are achieved through soft, rubbed, and repeated strokes and cross-hatching.

The addition of Mendiant Hindou gives them an important capsule collection. and I hope will inspire them to display all four of the works together so visitors can see the progression of his work.

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Erotic tiles from London pub on display for the first time

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of London’s most iconic and oldest pubs, has had a couple of run-ins with fire. The original pub at 145 Fleet Street was built in 1538. It burned down during the Great London Fire of 1666 and was rebuilt in 1667. That same 1667 reconstruction still stands but it was put to heated test in 1962 when fire broke out on the upper storey. Thankfully the damage was not catastrophic. In fact, in one way at least, it was a boon. A set of old tiles was discovered in the debris with explicit depictions of impressively varied sexual encounters.

Because they were too awesome to be seen by the general public, the tiles were hustled away to the Museum of London for study, not display. Experts found they were plaster of Paris relief tiles with sooting on the back that suggests they were used as fireplace surrounds. There was also scorching on the front of some from unintentional fires like the one that exposed them. Some were in good condition with just a few scratches; some were missing significant portions of the scene with only a disembodied foot on a pillow remaining; some were broken into several pieces. From the dress of the figures, particularly their blunt-toed shoes, curators determined the tiles were made after 1740.

Among the more notable scenes depicted are one of a woman whipping a man’s naked buttocks with a bundle of twigs while another woman kneels in front of him, one of a woman in a basket on a rope, lowering herself onto a man on his back underneath her, one of a woman bent over holding a pillow while a man penetrates her from behind, one of a woman straddling a man seated on a chair. In the ribald 18th century, these kinds of materials were relatively common, if you had the money to acquire them. Moulded plaster reliefs were not expensive to produce, but the erotic subject matter would have jacked up (snicker) the price considerably. Very few of these erotic artifacts from this time have survived.

It’s not clear why the pub was so spicily decorated upstairs. One possibility is that Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese had a little side business as a brothel going on. They could also have adorned a gentleman’s club room. The 18th century saw a proliferation of libertine private societies like The Hellfire Club which met to celebrate wine, women and song.

The collection was put in storage at the museum and hasn’t seen the light of say since. There aren’t even images on their entries in the online ceramics catalog, unlike with the thousands of other far less interesting tiles. Small pictures of one complete tile (a fairly staid one) and a few inscrutable fragments are available as prints for sale (the first eight results here), and that’s it.

That will change come Valentine’s Day, when the complete set will be put on public display for the first time at an evening exhibition for adults only alluringly titled Late London: City of Seduction. It’s a one night only event, and, in my nerdy opinion, a far more productive couples activity than boring old dinner reservations. Chocolate at Hampton Court Palace during the day, then absinthe tasting and sex tile viewings at night. Now that’s how you show a date a good time.

Having said that, I think it’s lame in this day and age that the tiles aren’t on regular display. I thought we were past needing secret rooms in museums for ancient Roman phalluses and erotic art to be hidden away where only men of wealth and hilariously theoretical good character were allowed to see them. Surely we’re past hiding them in storage all together and only allowing the public to enjoy them when there’s a nice Valentine’s Day profit to be made in ticket sales.

Museum of London curator Jackie Keily says in this article that “for obvious reasons these tiles are not normally out on public display.” Why is it obvious? If you’re concerned about children being exposed to sexually graphic historical material (I personally am not, but I get that it raises issues for some), you can keep the artifacts in an adults-only space. Otherwise, what’s the big deal? I say let the Georgian freak flag fly.

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